In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s milestone speech, PolicyMic writers have argued if the proposed troop draw-downs from Afghanistan will undermine the American war effort, or whether or not 33,000 troops is in fact too small a withdrawal after 10 years of war. It has certainly been a volatile and politically contentious decision.
This focus on U.S. decision making is valid, given its preponderance of military power in Afghanistan. However, I would like to briefly focus on the rest of the NATO coalition, which collectively field around 40,000 troops as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Specifically, now that the U.S. has made its timeframe for withdrawal clear, I believe that the financially and militarily over-stretched European members of the coalition will face a major test of alliance solidarity in the run-up to 2014.
As Obama came into office in 2009, European pubic opinion about a possible “surge” of forces to rectify the growing instability in Afghanistan was unequivocally negative. Large European contributors such Britain, Germany, and France were facing the aftermath of the biggest financial shock in recent history as well as a mounting death toll.
Yet, despite these pressures and more than a little reticence, European members eventually answered the call to help support the U.S. plan. Slowly, Europe pledged the 10,000 troops needed to compliment America’s 30,000 soldiers. While Europe’s delivery on its promises has not been perfect, there has certainly been a significant “European surge,” an expression of NATO alliance solidarity in this difficult conflict.
However, now that the U.S. has outlined plans for lowering its presence in Afghanistan, there is a very serious risk that individual European withdrawals could escalate into an uncoordinated “run for the exit.”
So far, only France has explicitly stated it will also be conducting a “phased withdrawal” in line with America’s decision. Indeed, it is reasonable that European members will start to decrease their presence in Afghanistan as 2014 approaches.
Yet, there is potential for individual nations to seriously damage alliance solidarity in this process. While the Netherlands were forced to unceremoniously withdraw their ISAF contingent due to parliamentary deadlock in 2010, most other ISAF members have managed to shield their Afghanistan commitments from the political instability of the debt crisis.
This might not be the case for long. Although their troop commitments are small, Greece and Portugal’s debt crisis and domestic unrest could lead to a faster withdrawal. Moreover, debt-wracked Spain’s significant 1,500 troop deployment could be at risk, especially considering the country has dropped out of coalition missions before.
Indeed, while it is unlikely that major partners such as France or Britain will pull out unilaterally, mismatched pace could once again raise recriminations of unequal burden-sharing. This would be bad for the Afghan mission and for NATO.
In short, Afghanistan is an unpopular deployment, and the contentious issue of how many forces will be drawn-down by each nation will have a strong impact on NATO alliance politics. An important part of the withdrawal will be carefully handling these delicate inter-alliance issues. No member must be seen as “running for the exit” if the Afghan withdrawal is going to be successful.
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